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Walking the intellectual high wire with Roger Scruton
 
By Murray Soupcoff
web posted September 8, 2003
 
  These days conservative writers come in all stripes. And one of the most profound -- if somewhat esoteric -- is English author Roger Scruton.

Unfortunately, for those with a somewhat practical perspective, most of Roger Scruton's writings are about as far away as you can get from the lively fusillades of practical wit and outraged innuendo regularly unleashed on the liberal-conservative battlefield by the likes of Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and William Grim. However, a recent essay by Scruton in the New Criterion, titled Why I became a conservative, is still well worth reading.

Roger ScrutonUnfortunately, for the uninitiated, Roger Scruton is more philosopher than journalist. And his perspective is more cultural than political -- with an emphasis on "aesthetics" as much as on political or economic values. In fact, much of his writing could be described as ontological -- in the philosophical sense -- an attempt to work out a conservative philosophy of being, determining why we are here and what we should do with the brief time allotted to us to in this all too material world (as Madonna might put it, especially now that she's into studying Hassidic thought).

Unfortunately, reading Roger Scruton is also an acquired taste. He's a man who uses big words and expresses big thoughts. He'd just as well quote T.S. Elliot as Charles Krauthammer, or sing the praises of Edmund Burke rather than Bill O'Reilly. However, he has a lot to say of importance, especially to the many casualties of our modern-day universities who have been exposed to unsafe levels of post-colonial "critical thought" (pollution of the soul).

For example, Scruton effectively critiques the destructive nihilism of notorious left-lib cultural icon and deceased French psychoanalyst, Michel Foucault. As Scruton notes about 'Les mots et les chose,' Foucault's clarion call to the young and foolish to join together in cultural rebellion:

It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the 'discourses' of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue -- by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies -- that 'truth' requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the 'episteme,' imposed by the class which profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy.

Scruton takes on the politically-correct ideologues in our universities who are the direct heirs to the politico-social philosophy of the anarcho-Marxists who tore up the streets of Paris in 1968, in an unseemly "revolutionary" orgy of hurled concrete, looting, mayhem and violence. He confronts their nihilistic "post-colonial" utopianism and anti-Americanism with a calming intellectual articulation of a more realistic conservative alternative.

Probably most valuable is Scruton's celebration of the Anglo-Saxon intellectual roots of the Western liberal-democratic republican tradition (and the still enduring philosophical principles that inspired the revolutionary ethos of America's Founding Fathers) as a real-world answer to the abstract, utopian radicalism of the likes of Foucault or Derridaut. As Scruton puts it, in describing the benefits of his education as an English lawyer:

In fact I never practiced at the Bar and received from my studies only an intellectual benefit -- though a benefit for which I have always been profoundly grateful. Law is constrained at every point by reality, and utopian visions have no place in it. Moreover the common law of England is proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault.

In fact, if one takes Scruton's political philosophy to its logical conclusion, the constitutional form of democratic government created by the American Founding Fathers -- with its additional checks and balances -- is probably, in its ideal incarnation, the ultimate rejoinder to Foucault -- a democratic constitutional system in which the consent and will of the people legitimizes power and in which established power exists without oppression while fostering maximum liberty and economic prosperity.

It's interesting to note too that despite what many might consider his early preoccupation with "high culture" and "aesthetics", Roger Scruton was also wise and pragmatic enough to recognize the intrinsic threat to civilized existence posed by Communism and the totalitarian Communist state. And his practical efforts at coming to the aid of "dissidents" in the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War only sharpened his ability to "deconstruct" the Orwellian nature of the nightmare that existence becomes in the cruel, soulless urban gulags produced when abstract Marxist revolutionary theory finds its incarnation in the collectivist totalitarian state:

Perhaps the most fascinating and terrifying aspect of Communism was its ability to banish truth from human affairs, and to force whole populations to 'live within the lie,' as President Havel put it. George Orwell wrote a prophetic and penetrating novel about this; but few Western readers of that novel knew the extent to which its prophecies had come true in Central Europe. To me it was the greatest revelation, when first I travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1979, to come face to face with a situation in which people could, at any moment, be removed from the book of history, in which truth could not be uttered, and in which the Party could decide from day to day not only what would happen tomorrow, but also what had happened today, what had happened yesterday, and what had happened before its leaders had been born.

If nothing else, if you have a short attention span or an allergy to high-fallutin' intellectual musing, skip through the first half of Scruton's Why I became a conservative essay, to his vivid recollections of his first visit to Czechoslovakia during the Cold War years. Here his novelistic talents launch into full gear and he paints a chilling picture of just how lethal to everyday existence were the routinized Communist dictatorships of the twentieth century, with their chokehold on ideas, spontaneity and liberty:

I arrived at the house, after walking through those silent and deserted streets, in which the few who stood seemed occupied by some dark official business, and in which Party slogans and symbols disfigured every building. The staircase of the apartment building was also deserted. Everywhere the same expectant silence hung in the air, as when an air-raid has been announced, and the town hides from its imminent destruction. Outside the apartment, however, I encountered two policemen, who seized me as I rang the bell and demanded my papers. Dr. Tomin came out, and an altercation ensued, during which I was thrown down the stairs. But the argument continued and I was able to push my way past the guard and enter the apartment. I found a room full of people, and the same expectant silence. I realized that there really was going to be an air-raid, and that the air-raid was me.

In short, if you're in the mood for some cultural enrichment, with a conservative emphasis, then the latest autobiographical missive from Roger Scruton is highly recommended.

Murray Soupcoff is the author of 'Canada 1984'. He also was Executive Editor of We Compute Magazine for many years, and is now the publisher and editor of the popular conservative Web site, The Iconoclast.

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